Strong with the weak. Weak with the strong

Local authorities often come down with disproportionate force on minor offenders, even in cases where the crimes committed will have caused no real harm to others, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to other, much more serious infringements

The above expression has been often used to describe at least one aspect of the institutional rot that has been known to plague our country over the years.

And not without good reason: for it accurately describes a tendency for local authorities to often come down with disproportionate force on minor offenders – even in cases where the crimes committed will have caused no real harm to others – while simultaneously turning a blind eye to other, much more serious infringements: sometimes, including accidental (possibly even intentional) homicide.

‘Strong with the weak’ is also a complaint very frequented levelled at regulatory authorities such as the PA. And it may even account for the government’s recent failure to impress the FATF – and thus avoid greylisting – in the same way as it had earlier convinced Moneyval.

There is, after all, a limit to how far a country can realistically deceive international observers, at this level. A few random prosecutions here and there, for (mostly) minor cases of money-laundering, do not quite compensate for the State’s failure to ever prosecute politically-motivated crimes with the same zeal.

This is, in fact, part of the reason, given by the FATF itself, for why it remained so unconvinced about Malta’s progress on the ‘rule-of-law’ front. And just as the FATF that can easily see through such a ruse; so, too, can the vast of majority of the Maltese people.

The same underlying problem can also be discerned in the conclusions of the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. It is part-and-parcel of the same ‘culture of impunity’ identified by that report: emphasizing that, when it comes to enforcing regulations, one cannot simply ‘pick and choose’ between individual cases… at least, not in a country where the law is supposedly ‘equal for all’.

One recent example – which understandably caused a furore, at the time – concerns the very lenient sentence meted out to two architects found guilty of causing Miriam Pace’s death in March 2020.

Despite finding both defendants guilty of involuntary homicide – and even observing that they had “betrayed their oath of appointment as architects” – the magistrate unaccountably chose, on that occasion, to limit the sentence to only a fine, and community service. Once again, a court ruling had sent out the wrong message – this time, to bullish contractors and developers, whose actions had involuntarily cut short a woman’s life, as she was going about her daily life, in her home.

It was, as this newspaper noted at the time, “a slap in the face of those who expected justice from this case.” But the message itself was by no means limited to the leniency applied by the courts, in this particular instance: it has to also be seen in the context of how the same authorities – be they the law-courts, or any other local arbitrator – invariably apply a much harsher approach, when it comes to the weakest and most vulnerable of social cases.

While there are plenty of other examples to choose from, never have the words ‘strong with the weak, weak with the strong’ been so poignantly applied, as to the recent case where two Turkish women were imprisoned for entering the country using forged documents.

Without in any way debating whether those two particular individuals were, in fact, ‘guilty of a crime’ in the eyes of the law (victimless though it was)… there is much to be said about the arbitrary – some would say ‘discriminatory’ – way that ‘justice’ was actually meted in this case.

As pointed out by Moviment Graffitti activist Mary Grace Vella – and as already amply illustrated by the verdict in Miriam Pace’s case – the law courts do have other options, at their disposal, than the blanket imposition of a prison sentence.

Given that the offence itself was of a minor nature, and clearly did not pose any real threat to others, there was nothing stopping the law-courts from handing down an altogether more humane – and less blatantly disproportionate – punishment. Such as, for instance, the same ‘community service’ that seems to be reserved only for ‘privileged’ suspects.

Indeed, there were many extenuating circumstances – not least, the fact that the two women claim to have been escaping persecution in their homeland; not to mention the fate their young children, who had to be handed over to the State’s custody, and denied access to their mothers – that should clearly have warranted a more humane approach.

Moreover, as noted by Vella, ‘alternatives to prison’ are somehow routinely utilised in other, more serious cases: sometimes including violent crimes, and offences which carry a maximum sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment.

It is self-evident that such crimes pose infinitely more harm to their victims, and to society in general, than to the use of forged documents by asylum seekers. And as Vella rightly concludes: “It is thus clearly the case, that in such instances, the criminal justice system is being strong with the weak, and weak with the strong.”

One can only question, then, how long the problem itself will continue to persist… even now that it has been so rudely dragged out into the open, for all to see, and be ashamed of.